The decision to abandon the November referendum on a new waterfront stadium sends two encouraging signals about Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg: 1) He is willing to listen; 2) He's not spoiling for a fight.
The move was politically inevitable, perhaps. The Rays were running into mounting roadblocks: a Tourist Development Council that covets its resort tax; a County Commission caught in an election cycle; a City Council pushed by the calendar and hectored by antistadium yard signs; a fuzzy development plan for the existing Tropicana Field site; a financing plan that still contained unfilled gaps; and an economy that unsettles all of the above.
That said, the Rays could have soldiered on. They had the money, at least, to run a viable campaign aimed at converting skeptical voters. But that political order, according to a recent Times poll, was a tall one. Worse, a loss at the polls would send a powerfully negative message about the region's commitment to baseball — a message that would help neither the Rays nor the city.
To their credit, the Rays avoided that showdown, at least for now, and are supporting the work of a to-be-formed community group that will aim to keep this region's baseball marriage intact forever. Said Rays president Matt Silverman on Wednesday:
"One important thing this community dialogue has confirmed to us all is that projects of this magnitude cannot be built alone. It takes a region to support a Major League Baseball team, and it takes community vision and leadership to build a ballpark."
The committee, to be led by Progress Energy Florida president Jeff Lyash, will pursue a necessarily broad agenda. It is not looking merely to satisfy the Rays' desire for a new stadium but also to help build corporate and fan support for the team at Tropicana Field. Sternberg, whose ownership group has invested more than $20-million in Tropicana improvements and has fielded an exciting division contender this year, deserves as much.
Whether the committee will focus on the waterfront stadium or on other alternatives is a matter at its own discretion. But its primary objective is one for which there should be broad political consensus: Keep the Rays here.
At the Rays' announcement, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker spoke to the historic effort that ultimately landed Major League Baseball in the region and argued, notably, that a new stadium ultimately will be necessary to keep the team here.
"I think the one thing this discussion has crystallized in my mind," Baker said, "is that there is unity in our community and our entire region that we want to make sure that baseball succeeds."
That's a good reference point for the work ahead.